When our grandchildren were very young, they would ask typical children’s questions, like “Opa, what was it like growing up in Germany, in the war, when people were so bad to each other?” And when I tried to explain these complicated things to the children they asked one question over and over – “WHY? Why did all this happen?” Their persistent “WHY?” made me think deeply about the underlying causes of Nazi tyranny, about issues of right and wrong in the politics of nations, and of basic human morality. My attempts to find answers grew far beyond the simple recounting of the facts of the story.
Later, when my wife Francesca and I took our grandchildren to the areas in Germany where I grew up, my stories became a lot more real to them. It also didn’t hurt my credibility that they heard pretty much the same stories from my old friends there and my relatives. That was when it occurred to me to organize my thoughts in a book, so that when they grew up the lessons to be learned from the disasters caused by unprincipled national leaders would not be forgotten. It also drove me to be as historically factual as I could, because no inconsistency ever escapes a child’s hyper-vigilant “fact checking.”
Given this particular objective, it should not be surprising that I write about autocratic leadership – or, more specifically, about dictatorship – strictly from the perspective of my own personal experience. In other words, I want to convey to them what an “ordinary person” sees and feels when subjected to oppression and loss of personal freedom. I want to show them what living under a dictatorship does to people in their everyday lives, and how they have to learn to cope with daily threats to their personal liberty and the livelihood of their families.
I’d also like to state what my book is not meant to be. It is not an exhaustive study on the history of dictatorships – after all, I am not a political scientist, and I am not a historian. I do not try to grapple with the “big picture” of dictatorships – there are plenty of others who have done this exceeding well. It is also not my intent to approach the subject of dictatorship in the light of our present party politics – I am not a politician. When I do make observations about our own country’s present trends in national leadership I do not see them through the lens of parties or ideological groups – I see them as a matter of whether our elected representatives are doing their jobs properly, according to their oath of office which obliges them “…to support and defend the Constitution…bearing true faith to it…” I believe that regardless of party affiliation, all Americans basically have the best interests of our country at heart. However, that belief should not ever prevent us from asking questions when we see things happen on our political scene that make us doubt our leaders’ commitment to the solemn oath to serve the people, and not their own personal interests.
But there is indeed one political message in this book – it is to remind all of us that our liberty and our democratic way of governing ourselves must never be taken for granted. Too many nations have fallen into the trap of complacency even when they could have seen the tell-tale signs of overly-ambitious politicians leading them into the national disaster that follows a slide into dictatorship.